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To what extent are males and females different and to what extent do those differences depend on nature and nature? Though it is not my field of expertise, I have read a fair amount about brain differences between the sexes as well as the resulting behavioral differences. I have read The essential difference by Simon Baron-Cohen, as well as several books by Steven Pinker, who likes to discuss sex differences as and what causes them. I have also skimmed through the wildly popular “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus…” by John Gray (a book that is very unscientific and overrated). If you have also read these books and, like me, believe that there are essential differences between the sexes, then you should read this book. Cordelia Fine takes on John Gray as well as the academic heavyweights, Baron-Cohen (Cambridge University) and Pinker (Harvard), and though I did not think so when I picked up the book, would argue that she comes out on top.
Cordelia Fine did not change my mind completely; I still believe that when you average things, there are differences between the sexes, both regarding the neural architecture and the behavior. I don’t think Cordelia Fine would disagree with this position, but the point of this book is to correct all the wrongs that have been done in the name of (assumed) gender differences. In doing so, Cordelia has provided me with a healthy dose of skepticism about such claims, and she is very convincing in arguing that many of the differences we do see between the sexes are not ‘in our genes’, but rather are due to environmental factors such as socialization and stereotype threat.
Moreover, Cordelia is also stringent in her approach. When she criticizes authors such as Simon Baron-Cohen, she goes back to the studies on which his claims rest and shows why the studies do not support his claims. This is the proper way to criticize scientific publications, but many others still fail to do so. Having said that, Cordelia Fine also frequently uses the less scholarly strategy of sarcasm in the book, so much so that you have to be on guard not to confuse her sarcasm with her actual views. Still, the sarcasm helps spice up the book a little and helps keep the book interesting even while going into such detail (describing the scientific methodology and retaining someone’s attention is usually a challenge).
Fine's argument is basically that often we cannot tell whether a difference in behavior between men and women reflects innate, hard-coded, differences or if that difference is due to either socialization or stereotype threat, i.e. nurture. In the past, we usually have misattributed differences to nature in a way that seems quite preposterous today. People used seriously think that women did not have the constitution to do anything besides rearing children and cooking. Cordelia argues, and I think she is right, that we still do this today, albeit to a lesser degree. For example, she points to many studies showing that girls and women's performance on math tests and mental rotation tests depend to some extent on whether they believe that they are innately inferior, equal or superior on such tasks. Girls who believe that girls are poor in math also get worse results. In other words, it makes a lot of sense to be very careful when asserting that one sex is inferior to the other, no matter which task it is. Again, Cordelia never argues that there are no differences between the sexes, she merely muddies the water for those who claim that such differences are easily detectable and due entirely to nature.
For me, this book was one of those rare books that caused a significant switch in my thinking. The fact that it achieved this while also being entertaining is an impressive feat! I highly recommend this book.
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We like to congratulate ourselves often for living in an age of scientific objectivity, unclouded by gender stereotypes of past generations who used science to prove why men are superior to women. Fine, study by study, demonstrates why our self-congratulations is unfounded.
11 of 12 people found this review helpful